Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor

150 years ago this week, on 25th June 1865, Hudson Taylor started the China Inland Mission, now OMF International.  It had (and still has, though slightly adapted) the goal of “the urgent evangelisation of China’s millions”.

Taylor was greatly concerned that the Chinese were dying without Jesus.  This prompted the sense of urgency which pervaded not only the CIM but other 19th century missions too.  They were motivated to take the message of Jesus to people who  were being lost, consigned to hell for eternity.

These days, hell is an unpopular and rarely mentioned concept in much of western Christianity.  We feel it is distasteful, incompatible with the idea of a loving God, and disrespectful of those who choose not to follow Jesus.  We certainly don’t use it in our outreach, preferring instead to tell people of God’s love for them rather than focus on divine wrath.

Whether you agree with downgrading hell to a theological optional extra or not, the disappearance of hell from the evangelistic agenda has removed the sense of urgency.  We recognise that telling people they’re going to hell if they don’t repent is not the best way to build a bridge towards them.  And while we may not be sure what happens after death to those who don’t follow Jesus, we trust God to be fair and sort something out.  Rob Bell infamously flirted with universalism in his controversial book Love Wins, which was welcomed by many people who can’t stomach the idea of God condemning millions of his creatures to burn for eternity for the simple crime of not worshipping him even though nobody had told them to.

Today we prefer to take our time to woo people into the kingdom of God because we’re not in a hurry any more.  But that doesn’t mean people have stopped dying without Jesus.  In the time it’s taken you to read this blog, thousands have died before being told the message.  Whatever you believe happens to them after death, it can’t be as good as spending eternity with Jesus.  So go and tell them.  Quickly.

Jesus rescues us from God?

rob-bellOne of the attention-grabbing statements in Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, published a couple of years ago, was the statement that ‘Jesus rescues us from God’.  Bell loves these potentially controversial yet thought-provoking sayings, and while this may on the surface sound ridiculous, put into the context of the surrounding paragraph, it might superficially seem to make sense:

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue.  God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life.  However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach us that Jesus rescues us from God.

But in doing so, Bell has revealed his lack of Trinitarian thinking.  Steve Chalke did the same a few years ago, when an evangelical storm in a teacup blew up around his suggestion that God might have been guilty of cosmic child abuse by beating up his own son on the cross.  Neither of them intended to communicate that they really believed what they said, but they both inadvertently ignited some controversy.

What these two, and countless other Christians in recent years have started to do, is think of the Father (aka God), Jesus and the Holy Spirit as separate people.  This is understandable given that we classically formulate the Trinity as ‘God in three persons’.  But a person today is an individual, whereas 1700 years ago when the word ‘person’ was first used in this context, identity was far more rooted in community, family and relationship than individuality.

That means that the Christian Fathers who thrashed out the orthodox definition of Trinity were thinking more of three ‘persons’ in relationship, in community, together, rather than three individuals.  But in our individualistic culture the imagery of the Trinity is stretched almost to breaking point, as we find it hard to conceive of three ‘persons’ in one being, unless it is evidence of a personality disorder.  The postmodern church has become functionally tritheistic, simply because it is, on the surface, easier to reconcile.

But Bell is wrong: Jesus does not rescue us from God because Jesus is God.  Chalke is wrong: God did not beat up Jesus; God took the beating personally on the cross.

Trinitarian believers need to learn to see God in Jesus as much as we see Jesus in us.  Jesus had a very high Christology: He who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9).  I am in the Father and the Father is in me. (John 14:11).  I am the Father are one (John 10:30).  In this latter verse the Greek implies one thing or one substance, rather than the more metaphorical being of one heart and mind.

Not only did Jesus self-identify with the Father, he co-acted with the Father  – The Son can do nothing by himself… Whatever the Father does, the Son also does the same (John 5:20) and he co-spoke with the Father – I do not speak on my own initiative… I speak what the Father told me (John 12:49-50).

Even more radically, he then goes on to include to include us in this relationship of being and acting – I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you (John 14:20).  Remain in me, and I will remain in you (John 15:4).

And his missional mandate includes us too: God seeking the lost in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:9) becomes Jesus seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10) becomes our mandate in the Father and the Son: As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (John 20:21), empowered by the Holy Spirit, who abides with you, and will be in you (John 15:17).

When we see ourselves as part of this Trinitarian missio dei – God’s outreach to the world – we will find ourselves truly commissioned, sent, indwelt and inspired by the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

What excuse can we give?

Before I can preach love, mercy, and grace, I must preach sin, law, and judgment. – John Wesley

Some while ago I came across an old tract entitled What excuse can we give? It envisages a scenario of us arriving in heaven and finding a lot of empty seats.  They had been prepared for people whom God wanted to join him, but they had never accepted Jesus because WE had never told them about Him.

It may be an outmoded paradigm, but nevertheless this is a serious question we should ask ourselves.  How many people won’t make it to heaven because we never passed on the vital information?  And how do we justify that to God?  We were too busy?  We had important things to do?  We didn’t want to impose our religious beliefs on others?  I should imagine that such excuses will feel very shallow when we realise how many people have missed out because we didn’t consider the message important enough.

Perhaps the reason why we don’t spend every waking minute talking to the lost about Jesus is that we don’t believe any more that they really are lost.  We like the idea of heaven, but we have airbrushed hell out of the picture because it’s just too distasteful to us.  Can we really believe that a loving God will vindictively punish for all eternity those people who didn’t worship him in this life – just because they didn’t know who he is?  Surely a merciful God would just annihilate them, or even find a way to let them in the back door?

Yet this is not what the New Testament teaches us, no matter how much the likes of Rob Bell try to persuade us that we’ve misunderstood it.  It paints a vivid picture of a terrible doom that awaits the unsaved.  We may legitimately debate how much that picture is literal or figurative, but whichever way we interpret the message, we cannot get away from the fact that the future looks extremely unpleasant for the lost.  Why else would Jesus talk about weeping and gnashing of teeth?

This is the traditional impetus behind mission, whether at home or abroad.  We reach out to the lost not merely so that Jesus can help them in this life, or make them feel better about themselves, but so that he can save them from the wrath of God.  Mission builds not merely on Jesus’ instructions to his own disciples – ‘Go into all the world…’ (Matthew 28:19) and ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you…’ (John 20:21) and the example of the New Testament church – but on an Old Testament image of a God who seeks (Genesis 3:9), sends (Jonah 1:2) and warns (Jeremiah 26:3).

We don’t do much warning these days.  We do a lot more enticing.  Our Gospel is no longer ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’ so much as ‘God loves you and can solve all your problems.’  I’m not suggesting that we should go back to the days of trying to scare people into heaven by preaching hell and damnation.  But I am painfully aware that on the day of judgment an entire generation could stand up and accuse us: ‘You never warned us!’

God told Ezekiel that he was like a watchman on the city wall (Ezekiel 33:1-9).  If an enemy came to attack the city, and the watchman didn’t warn the people, and they died, it would be the watchman’s fault.  If however he warned them, and they died because they didn’t take any notice of him, it would be their own fault.

As we set out into a brand new year, let each of us resolve to take personal responsibility for warning those in danger.

Has Rob Bell fallen from grace?

Popular inspirational speaker and church leader Rob Bell has created a storm with his latest book Love Wins in which he challenges the church’s traditional understanding of heaven and hell.  Bell, pastor of the 10,000-strong postmodern church Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan (USA) and producer of the popular Nooma dvd series, has never been considered a theological heavyweight by evangelicals, despite the fact that he clearly makes every effort to make his teaching biblical (as he sees it) and this book is no exception.  Bell’s strength is communicating Christian truth in an entertaining and simple manner for a postmodern generation.

Bell’s favourite technique is to ask reductive rhetorical questions to help people realise the absurdity of the traditional view of heaven and hell.  Examples include:

God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy – unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God  punishes forever.  That’s the Christian story, right?

A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them, [will] in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who will ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue.  God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life.  However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach us that Jesus rescues us from God.

Bell is not in fact saying anything that erudite theologians in reputable seminaries haven’t been speculating about for decades, a point which he claims in his introduction to demonstrate his ‘alternative orthodoxy’.  Where Bell is different, however, is that he does not follow the traditional liberal line of beginning with a God of love and rejecting the authority of the Bible where it contradicts love.

While he begins with the problem (which all of us, in truth, grapple with) that an ostensibly loving God will condemn billions of his own creatures to burn forever, he seeks a fully biblical solution, looking at the teaching of Jesus and all the terms used in scripture for hell.  He explains that what Jesus and his listeners would have understood by heaven and hell are not the same as the image the church has inherited, and proposes a solution drawn from the parable of the prodigal son, where the older brother is invited to the party, still has the option of going to the party, but doesn’t.

The book itself is written in Bell’s engaging and accessible style, with plenty of rhetorical questions ridiculing the point he is criticising.  However, like Velvet Elvis, it starts with a big impact but gradually fizzles out.  It’s long on argument but short on proposition, and ends up being unable to answer coherently the questions that it has raised.

Technically, it fails to tackle head on some crucial texts (e.g. Matthew 13:47-52, Mark 9:47-48, 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9, Revelation 20:10, 15) while claiming to have fully examined everything the Bible has to say about the subject.  While Bell is also quite correct by arguing that ‘everlasting’ (aionios in Greek) can be translated ‘for a time’ as validly as it can be translated ‘forever’, he doesn’t deal with how this can apply where ‘everlasting punishment’ and ‘everlasting life’ appear in the same sentence (Matthew 5:46).

Bell concludes that there is (or will be) no such place as hell, if by hell you mean a lake of fire.  He implies that he might believe in purgatory, and clearly anticipates a beautiful future for most of us, Christian or not, unless we choose to reject it.  And although he doesn’t actually say it,  there may  be a possibility making that choice after death.  And if we do reject it, the consequences won’t be hell, though it’s not clear from this book what they might be.

Whether you love or hate this book will depend on whether you are modern or postmodern.  If you are the latter you will be thrilled that someone has had the courage to recontextualise biblical imagery to create a new paradigm empowering us to live life like it really matters.  If you are modern, you will be furious that a high profile public figure will so undermine Christian tradition and challenge orthodoxy.

Bell has not succeeded in providing any answers, and while many Christians will be encouraged that the fate of their loved ones who have already died might not be as awful as they had previously believed, many more will be confused by this controversial and ultimately unhelpful intervention.  I can’t wait for John Piper to reply, probably by writing a book defending hell.

Many evangelical Christians will be outraged and offended by Bell’s views, but it is lamentable that they care so passionately about defending the traditional understanding of hell, yet do so little to prevent their neighbours being sent there.